Magazine article Newsweek

A Catholic-School Veteran Tells All

Magazine article Newsweek

A Catholic-School Veteran Tells All

Article excerpt

Byline: David Noonan

What kids really learn when teachers resort to violence.

Every once in a while I run into someone who, like me, attended Catholic school in the '50s and '60s. These encounters usually follow a pattern. We establish terms of service--I put in 13 years, including kindergarten--test our memories of the Baltimore Catechism and the Latin mass, and recall things like meatless Fridays, the scourge of "impure thoughts" and Limbo, the nice but God-free place where babies who died before baptism spent eternity (and which the church essentially did away with in 2007). There is an odd charm to much of this, a quaint and funny weirdness that only another Catholic from that era can truly appreciate.

But the conversations inevitably turn to a decidedly less charming subject--getting smacked by nuns. I have no idea whether slapping kids across the face was officially sanctioned by the church in those days. I only know it happened, to me and plenty of other kids. The nuns who smacked me and my friends at our small elementary school in New Jersey were Sisters of Charity, a cheap bit of irony that always draws a chuckle when I talk about being on the receiving end of those holy rights and lefts. And let me say right here that not every nun I encountered in the early '60s resorted to physical violence. Most didn't, in fact, but the ones who did established a pervasive atmosphere of low-grade dread that still taints my memories of those years.

The offenses that brought down the wrath of the sisters included "talking back"--which was my specialty--swearing, fighting, fooling around in church, throwing snowballs at girls and so on. In other words, kid stuff. And because each nun had her own mysterious criteria, not to mention her own unfathomable (to us, anyway) moods, there was a nerve-racking randomness to the way punishment was meted out. …

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